I’ve always found it strange that, for someone with such limited mathematical ability, I am fascinated by statistics.
This came to mind early in December when I made out my checklist to record daily bird sightings; I noticed that in each of the last three Decembers I had recorded 48 species. As a result of teaching genetics for 40 years, I knew enough about probability to be aware that if you
flip coins long enough you will eventually get 10 heads in a row, so getting the same number of birds three years in a row was just a statistical coincidence. Nevertheless, when the last week of December arrived and I found my list again contained 48 species, I began to feel
On the last Sunday of 2003, a high pressure system settled over the Carolinas and pumped warm air northward, raising the temperature in Emmitsburg above 50 degrees and making a walk imperative. So as soon as lunch was finished, I started walking toward Toms Creek
with two specific objectives in mind. First, I would not come back until I had found at least one more bird. Second, I expected that the idea I had for my next Dispatch article would gel, as usually happens on a walk, so when I next sat down at the computer the words would flow
into a more or less cohesive essay.
The first objective was met simply enough; I found a half-dozen Myrtle Warblers eating poison ivy berries in a vine-covered tree near the creek. But the idea I was nurturing did not gel; it dissipated into the air, replaced by a number of small, unrelated
observations that were more trivial than the intended topic but would not go away. And now, the editor’s deadline has arrived; so here they are, in no particular order. Maybe that other idea will come back later.
Usually I walk straight past the ball fields in order to get to the woods as quickly as possible, but that day, purely on a whim, I decided to walk around the newest field. Stopping behind the chain-link fence that encloses right field to listen for birds, I
spotted a softball in a drainage ditch. My instinct was to go and get it, but it was under a rather formidable thorn bush and would also have required wading through water up to my knees. So I left it there, assuming whoever was responsible for retrieving home run balls had had
the same problem. However, I had gone no more than 20 feet before I saw another ball, in the open, in plain sight; and by the time I got to left field I had found 10 more. They were all brand new, unmarked except for a bit of mud. I put one in my pocket and threw the rest over
the fence, back into the playing field. But my mind was no longer on birds; I left the area thinking of how things have changed.
When I was in school, softball was the favorite game at recess. We got one new ball in the fall, and it had to last. If someone hit it over the fence or into the woods, the game stopped and everyone searched until we found it. After a few weeks it got lopsided and
mushy, so even the biggest kids couldn’t hit it over the fence. When the stitching began to break, I was usually nominated to take it home and re-sew it, using string saved from old feed sacks. This went on until finally the stuffing broke out of the center; and when it could no
longer be repaired, we had to give up softball and play something else. The budget allowed for only one more ball, and we had to wait until spring for it. Nowadays, apparently, if a ball goes over the fence no one bothers to retrieve it; a new one is thrown in and play goes on. I
suppose the cost of a softball is a trivial matter in today’s economy, but I am depressed to see this attitude of casual disregard for wastefulness being reinforced among our children, especially in a game that is known for its potential to build character.
As I walked up the stream bank I heard the roar of a 4-wheeler being started at a farm a quarter-mile to the south. A minute later a red fox appeared, running at top speed from the patch of woods on the left. He was in beautiful condition, with a thick, lustrous
coat and a full, bushy tail trailing behind him. It was his territory, and he knew what was going on. The 4-wheeler tore off from the farm toward the woods the fox had just vacated, and there it was joined by two more of the noisy abominations; and the three of them proceeded to
chase each other among the trees. So much for the soil and the wildlife.
The walk went on. Besides the myrtle warblers, I saw 20 other species of birds, all of which I had seen previously that month… an unremarkable list. What I did not see was more remarkable. The Tufted Titmouse, usually one of the most abundant residents of that
habitat, was missing; if fact, they have not been at my feeder this winter, and I saw only one in the whole month. And for the first time ever, I did not see a single crow on the entire walk. Perhaps it was one of those statistical oddities that happen if you wait long enough;
but more likely, it was an ominous sign. West Nile virus is known to have reached Maryland… one more factor to add to the ever-growing file of environmental stresses our bird populations must contend with.
Life goes on the best it can. It was winter, but a Witch-Hazel tree was coming into bloom. Under the ice at the edge of a pond were bubbles of oxygen, produced by green algae I could see growing there. It was Spirogyra; although I could see only its stringy
outline, I knew it was composed of filaments of clear cells with intricate, spiral-shaped chloroplasts, and it was surrounded by a microcosm of minute, mindless, yet fantastically beautiful animal life… a miniature ecosystem. Perhaps not having a mind is an advantage; perhaps not
knowing about the future makes optimism possible.
Sometime during every walk, I think of my father. It is not just maudlin sentimentality; rather, I think, it is some odd kind of imprinting, for my first walks were with him. One day, half-way through his 86th year, he watched his morning TV program, laid down to take a pre-lunch
nap, and died peacefully in his sleep. In doing so he taught us an important lesson: in spite of our sense of loss and sadness, the next day the sun came up on schedule and the rest of the world went about its business as usual. In similar fashion, the year 2003 slipped quietly
into history. There are softballs rotting in the field, West Nile virus killing native birds, AIDS and famine in Africa, an earthquake in Iran, an economy out of control, young people dying in a senseless war in Iraq… and trees blooming in the dead of winter, and algae growing
under the ice. Make sense of it if you can; look for peace where you may find it. For a while yet, life goes on.